Thanks to Scottie Pippen’s recent statements, we now to get to revisit the 1990s yet again. Pippen, who apparently has a book and some other stuff to promo, told Dan Patrick and GQ that Phil Jackson’s decision to choose Toni Kukoc to take the final shot of Game 3 against the Knicks in the 1994 playoffs was “a racial move to give [Kukoc] a rise.” At the time, Pippen refused to go back into the game and Kukoc did hit the shot for the win.
Pippen and Kevin Durant also had an extended Twitter feud where KD took exception to a Pippen critique that Durant was forcing too many shots against the Bucks in the playoffs. Durant, who has also been known to lash out, shockingly lashed out at Pippen on Twitter about being a bad teammate and referencing Pippen’s refusal to enter the game against the Knicks in 1994, as well as Pippen’s decision to delay needed surgery in 1997 until the start of the season. Pippen missed several months of the 1997-98 when he could’ve done the surgery earlier. The Bulls did end up winning the title that year but Pippen frustrated management and Michael Jordan with how the situation was handled. As with all good Twitter spats, the KD/Pippen was spectacle but lacked any nuance.
I have always been somewhat sympathetic to Pippen. His manhood was questioned when he struggled through a migraine during Game 7 against the Pistons in 1990. Any person whoever suffered a bona fide migraine could tell you that standing up straight, let alone playing professional basketball, is nearly impossible in that circumstance. The same manhood questions cropped up with Pippen against the Knicks in 1992. Pippen seemed somewhat intimidated by Xavier McDaniel that series but he came through in Game 7 and vanquished them. I thought we could take a slightly deeper look at the Kukoc shot and the surgery decision and see how much criticism Pipp deserved for the incidents and see how reasonable Pippen’s actions really were.
Game 3 1994: 1.8 Seconds Left
A little context is necessary here. In 1993-94, Jordan had retired and Pippen had the season of his career, leading the Bulls to a 55-27 record. They were now playing their hated rivals the Knicks with the game tied and 1.8 second left in Game 3 of the second round of the playoffs. Jackson then called a play where Pippen was to inbound the ball and try to get the shot to Kukoc. This is when Pippen freaked out on the bench.
According to Sam Smith in “Second Coming,” there was “chaos on the bench…Bill Cartwright [was] yelling at Pippen that the team needed him, Pippen stone-faced and determined, but weakening, assistant Johnny Bach pleading….Then Jackson said, ‘Fuck him, we’ll do it without him.’” And somehow they did and Kukoc hit an amazing fadeaway over Anthony Mason.
The notion that any of that was race-based seems ridiculous. Pippen’s gripes with Kukoc are well-known and deep seeded. Pippen really resented how management courted Kukoc in Europe while they antagonized Pippen. The resentment was understandable but Jackson was very separate from the front office and had only one goal….to win games. In fact, Jackson barely played Kukoc that game. Toni had played 13 minutes and was 1-5 from the field at the time. Pippen had 25 points and was 10-20 from the field. Jackson’s choice of Kukoc definitely seems unorthodox but was based on past history.
In January 1994, Jackson had run a play where Pippen inbounded the ball to Kukoc, who hit a game winner against the Pacers. Jackson wanted to run the same play again and figured that Kukoc, at 6’11, could shoot easily over the 6’7 Mason, who would be guarding him. Jackson was correct on all fronts. The logic was reasonable but Pippen’s real beef was that he was inbounding, which eliminated the theoretical chance of a shot as even a secondary option. Had Jackson left Pippen on the court, even as a decoy, the Bulls probably would’ve been better off and Pippen might’ve been less freaked out. Jackson would surely retort that Pippen was their best passer but the play worked with Pete Myers as the passer so who knows?
After the game, Pippen apologized to his teammates but then went out and said “I’d do the same thing [if given the chance].” Pippen actually blamed Bulls GM Jerry Krause back then as well: “[t]hey understand why I didn’t take the ball out. They understand my feelings about Krause. Krause is in love with Kukoc. He’d send him gifts when he was still in Europe…..I felt it was an injustice the way Phil treated me. Do you think teams are saying, ‘We’ve got to stop Kukoc?, Or, ‘We’ve got to stop Pippen?’ I had to say something, whether it was the wrong time or the wrong thing….It was the right thing to do for me.”
Pippen’s anger was understandable. Jackson’s decision was not totally crazy but it was quite unconventional. Nearly any other coach would’ve called Pippen’s number on that play. Still, there is ultimately no excuse for refusing to go into a game. Several other players in the 1990s were considered malcontents for doing similar things in much lower stakes moments. Had Derrick Coleman, for example, done what Pippen did, the anger would’ve been much more severe. Also odd is that time has not calmed down Pippen on this issue. One would think that winning six titles and having a great career would overshadow this one moments (especially since the damn play worked!).
As a quick postscript, Basketball-Reference.com has cataloged every buzzer beater in NBA history. Kukoc has hit only two (the Pacer game from January 1994 and the aforementioned shot). Pippen has only one, a shot to beat the Knicks on December 29, 1988 over Patrick Ewing (who had rejected a few previous attempts).
Pippen’s Surgery in 1997
By the beginning of the 1997-98, Pippen’s relationship with the Bulls had really devolved into pure antagonism. The Bulls had two record breaking title teams in 1995-96 (72-10) and 1996-97 (69-13). 1997-98 was Pippen’s final year of his contract and the Bulls had no intention of extending him (or Jordan for that matter). The Bulls were clear favorites to win again but Pippen was a key player and knew he needed foot surgery as early as the end of the 1997 playoffs. At the time, AP reported that Krause as saying that the delay was not a result of malingering bur rather that “the Bulls followed a conservative path, prescribing offseason rest. But it didn’t work, and surgery was the only remaining option.”
Shortly after, The Hartford Courant reported that “Pippen’s bitterness toward the Bulls front office is such that, despite a foot injury that hobbled him late in the 1997 playoffs, he delayed surgery until just before training camp, leaving the Bulls to founder in the early season without him.” Pippen also began telling reporters that he expected to be traded before he came back from surgery, implying that he didn’t want to come back and was in no rush to do so: “I’m not going to play there anymore and that’s that. I think I’ve been treated very unfairly through this organization, and it’s gotten to the point now, I don’t see myself carrying on with it. I would rather leave things as I can remember them as a player and go on.”
The Bulls management knew this was a weak bluff. MJ, Jackson, and Dennis Rodman had been brought back specifically for one last run. Pippen, as a pending free agent, would crater his value if he didn’t comeback. Pippen would come back by January 10, 1998 and play well and play hard.
In the meantime, Jordan had to shoulder a heavy load. In that time without Pippen, the Bulls went 24-11, which projects out to about a 58-24 season. With Pippen back, the Bulls went 38-9, which would be a 66-16 record in a full season and enough to earn home court for the playoffs. As it was, the Bulls were 62-20 and still earned home court in the East (over the 58-24 Pacers) but lost out to the Jazz (also 62-20 but won the tiebreaker). This set up the Jordan’s best moment when he beat Utah in Game 6 to clinch the series. In some ways, MJ can thank Pippen for the set up but if Pipp had had surgery earlier, the Bulls probably would’ve cruised to an easier victory in the NBA Finals.
Pippen acted against the Bulls interests (and his own) by not resolving his health issue earlier. It worked out for everyone anyway. The Bulls won the title despite this and Pippen got a big contract from Houston. In Pippen’s defense, other players have blown off surgery to enjoy the summer. Shaquille O’Neal famously did the same thing in 2002 and it did hurt the team. Yup, that’s not a great excuse.
In the end, it’s safe to say that Pippen was very temperamental (and continues to be to this day). That aggression was mostly positive but he is somewhat lucky that his bad moments just ended up working out anyway.